Tensions loom over Alexandria’s vote in referendum

Alexandria - Randa Ali, Friday 14 Dec 2012

A closer look at political tensions in Egypt's second largest city, Alexandria, on eve of constitutional referendum

Citizens remove posters of "Yes" vote during Friday's clashes in Alexandria, 14 December (Photo: Randa Ali)

In Egypt's second largest city, political forces continue to wrestle over what Alexandria will vote for on Saturday’s constitutional referendum.

The coastal city has continuously broken the predictions of its observers, most notably during the last presidential elections. Alexandria is known for being an important base for Islamists, but the majority voted for Nasserist Hamdeen Sabbahi as president, giving him the highest votes among all thirteen candidates.

Regardless of expectations all political forces are preparing for the first stage of voting on Egypt’s post-revolution constitution scheduled for Saturday, 15 December.

The Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) have been holding continuous lectures and conferences to raise awareness on the importance of the constitution and what are the rights introduced in it, said Atef Abu El-Eid, secretary general of the Freedom and Justice Party’s media committee.

“Only yesterday we held a conference in El-Agami (near Alexandria). It was attended by Nader Bakkar (spokesperson of the Nour Party and member of the Constituent Assembly),” said Abu El-Eid.

Abu El-Eid added that these conferences have encouraged many people to read the constitution and understand it “in spite of the defaming campaign held by the media."

According to Abu El-Eid, the FJP is not working on its own, but in collaboration with other Islamists movements, syndicates, and revolutionary youth.

Abu El-Eid further praised the role played by Salafist Nour Party in mobilizing the street and raising awareness among the people.

Alexandria's anti-constitution support

A similar role is being played by forces affiliated with the opposition. However, these groups urge Egyptians to vote against the new constitution.

“We’re currently focusing on the residential areas (in Alexandria) specially, lower class ones such as Abu Suleiman, Karmuz, Bakos,” Abdel Rahman El-Gohary, lawyer and member of the Egyptian Popular Current, told Ahram Online.

El-Gohary, whose movement has agreed to vote against the constitution as part of the National Salvation Front (NSF), asserted that the mobilization in Alexandria is not only by popular current.

“This is the coalition of civil forces as a whole. It also includes forces like the Constitution Party, Socialist Popular Alliance, and the pro-democracy Kefaya Movement,” added El-Gohary.

According to El-Gohary, the coalition has been raising awareness on the “problems of the constitution” through flyers, statements, knocking on people’s doors and trucks that roam around the governorate, explaining why the constitution is unrepresentative.

“Alexandria will be the most governorate with a 'no' vote in the constitutional referendum,” claimed El-Gohary. He also said that his prediction was a result of the positive reactions of Alexandrians towards the anti-constitution campaign.

Constitutional tensions in coastal city

While both forces for and against the constitution are racing against time, very little traces are seen on the coastal city.

Posters of parliamentary and presidential elections still cover the streets of Alexandria. Meanwhile, very few posters regarding the constitution have been added to the walls of the city.

Nevertheless, tension is felt among the residents of Alexandria.

On Friday morning, a scuffle broke out between supporters and opponents as a bearded passerby accused a group of anti-constitution protesters of being “infidels." The young bearded man was in return insulted and kicked by one of the protesters.

More clashes occurred in the afternoon leaving at least 19 injured, after controversial cleric Ahmed Mahalawy urged voters to say “yes” to the controversial draft constitution.

“Disputes are always there because this constitution is not consensual,” Ahmed Zakaria, an Alexandria resident who witnessed the scuffle, told Ahram Online.

Meanwhile, Mahmoud, an activist and member of 6 April Youth Movement – Revolutionary Front (one of several factions of the umbrella movement) in Alexandria, told Ahram Online that they have not clashed with Islamists during their campaigns against the constitution.

“Whenever the Muslim Brotherhood sees us passing by they just pack their things and go,” Mahmoud added.

Residents of Alexandria however did express some discontent regarding some of the campaigns.

“The Egyptian current or who call themselves ‘civil forces’ are now knocking on our doors asking us to vote against the constitution,” said 45-year-old Alexandrian resident, Ashraf.

Ashraf accused the “civil forces” of being undemocratic whenever faced with opposition.

“if we say disagree with them, they start insulting us, not to mention that they are distributing copies of the constitution that is different from the real one,” he added.

The Islamists forces have had their share of criticism as well, Om Ayman, an older woman selling tea and coffee for a passersby, complained that every now and then a sheikh shows up and says we must vote 'yes' so God’s law may be implemented for the sake of our kids.

“Others are asking us to vote 'no' for the good of the nation, most of us know nothing of what’s written in the constitution,” she added.

Om Ayman further said that in spite of not reading the constitution, she will be voting 'no' based on the opinions of people she trusts.

”I hear people saying that this constitution will turn Egypt into a religious state like Iran,” she said.

“We do not know if that is really going to happen, but I know that ever since the revolution a number of bearded men have been walking around Alexandria asking women not  to wear tight pants and to cover their head, threatening that soon all of this will not be allowed,” added Om Ayman.

Working at the bookshop that only sells Islamic and self-help books is 23-year old Ahmed Hassan, who in spite of selling the constitution is very reluctant on participating in the referendum.

“I am not going to vote in the referendum because the constitution is based on lies,” Hassan told Ahram Online, as he unfolded a brochure stamped by the Muslim Brotherhood reading “a constitution that preserves our Islamic identity."

“They are speaking in the name of Sharia, and there is no Sharia in that constitution,” Hassan said.

“They are allowing women and Copts to run for president and that is against Sharia,” he added.

Hassan further added that in spite of his discontent with the constitution, he is not considering to vote against the referendum because he does not want to support the opposition’s call.

“The opposition too are liars,” he added.

Alexandria is one of ten governorates who are scheduled to vote on Saturday 15 December, the other 17 governorates will be heading to the ballot boxes on 22 December.

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